What One of the World’s Great Novelists Learned About Writing from David Ogilvy

What One of the World’s Great Novelists Learned About Writing from David Ogilvy

Reader Comments (43)

  1. I do my best writing at the very last minute. I love the panic because it gets me moving. I’m a procrastinator of the 3rd degree. Which means that I have to motivate myself to get started long before my time runs out. Otherwise I’ll wait till the last hour. Many times, I’ve gotten great results and happy clients from this. But, my hair is going grey…

    I think there is a lot more in common with copywriting and creative writing than most people think. I write fiction (though unpublished as of yet) and am a mildly successful copywriter. To me, you have to be creative in order to be successful writing copy.

    That however, is just my loose change.


  2. Story telling and copywriting are identical. The best stories and best ads have conflict, agitation, and solutions. And a main character, of course.

    Great article.

  3. What I’ve learned about writing from copywriting is that it’s not about me. It’s about what my clients/readers want and need. It’s about what will resonate with them. For example, I may think a headline is clever but readers may not understand it. They’ll ignore the post. It’s the same with blog copy. I may think I wrote a 1,200 word amazing post; however, readers may have been satisfied with a 700-word post. Finally, I’ve learned to keep sentences short and simple. I toss out the fluff and keep the substance. I also learned this from catalog writing. You have to write persuasive copy if you want products in a catalog to sell.

  4. Great points, Amanda. It’s so helpful to have that kind of connection with your readers. Deliberate practice is all about getting feedback, and feedback from readers is the best kind.

  5. I’ve learned a lot from both sides, but I think one of the most important things is getting over my ego. A lot of amateur fiction writers have an attitude of “If the masses don’t understand/appreciate my brilliance, that’s their problem.” When you’re a copywriter, dealing with clients who expect results, you’re forced to admit to yourself “Maybe I’m not that brilliant. Maybe I do have a lot to learn about this craft. Maybe I can create something my audience will respond to without compromising my artistic values.”

    • Beginner screenwriters fall into this category, too. Their first drafts have all the usual beginner errors that make seasoned writers wince, but they will defend their choices vigorously. If I had a dime for all the times I’ve heard authors defend their screenplays without endings by saying, “but I want my readers to think about it…,” well, I’d only have a couple of bucks, but gimme a break! It’s OUR job as writers to write the ending – not the audience’s.

      Writing good endings is hard. For the most part, stories without endings are a cop out and really unsatisfying to audiences. So, get back in there, writers, and finish your story. And while you’re at it, try writing another draft. Rarely is something excellent at first pass; taking the time to polish and perfect is part of the craft.

      And that’s my rant. Thanks for the article. As a writer paying the bills with copywriting, it’s much appreciated.

  6. Thanks for the thought-provoking post, Joe. I’ve learned that strong writing mimics how people speak and think. And it’s not always in full sentences. Powerful words and combinations of words don’t have to be in perfect sentences that your high school English teacher would approve of.

    I have to disagree on panic though. For me, panic is a creativity killer. I need time and space to come up with my best writing. I nearly always write on deadline but my writing is better when I can stay with it for a while and not feel a crunch.


  7. Great _ is a job.

    Unless you get serious about your writing, then you’ll never get even close to your full potential.

    This goes for literally anything.

    Too many people treat their writing as a hobby in the hopes that it will provide a full time income.

    99% of the times, it won’t.

    It takes hard work to become successful, so to succeed you must be prepared to work, grind and sacrifice until you’re closer to your goal.

  8. Brilliant. Good writing and good copy seem super similar to me though. They can both either entertain, educate or be a call to some sort of action.

    I can definitely see why being good at copywriting would help any other writing, mainly for that point you mentioned of having to keep things short and sweet. The most effective messages are always the shortest. “Got Milk?”

  9. I thought I was a good writer. And then I accepted a job as a copywriter with a manager who was not afraid of using red ink. It was, hands-down, the best thing to ever happen to my writing–and my former red-ink-loving manager is now, and always will be, my mentor.

    So I couldn’t agree more with every aspect of this article. 🙂

    • Yes, gotta love tough critique. Speaking of red ink, I was just talking with an old professor who switched from red to green ink. He felt that ink the color of blood sent the wrong message. 😉

    • I also used to think I was a good writer. But then I took an arrow in a knee.

      On a more serious note, I wonder how many of the TOP 100 copywriters had a good editor/mentor and how many learned this art on their own?

      Because currently I don’t have one and wonder if I won’t take too long to learn all the DO’s and DONT’s.

      • While I’m faaaaar from calling myself one of the top 100 copywriters, I can say that in addition to her guidance, my mentor often gave me copywriting/ad books to read. We’d then have weekly lunch-and-learn sessions to discuss the books. So I learned a lot of the DO’s and DONT’s of copywriting by reading about them–it’s even how I discovered Copyblogger (thank God).

        So I think that with or without a mentor, it can’t hurt to read/learn as much as you can about copywriting . At the very worst, it’ll give you some extra trivia-winning fodder–should it ever come up. 😉

    • I agree. Before I started writing copy for people I thought I was good. Other clients told me that, but when it came to copy, no, couldn’t cut it.

      I’m slowly starting to improve; clients take what I give them after a draft or two instead of yelling at me for wasting their time.

    • Agreed! Writing essays didn’t quite prepare me for writing copy. I remember one of my first jobs, the client said, “Where’s the beef?” I’ve never worked harder since I started writing copy! Thanks, Joe. Great article.

  10. Great post! I love Salman Rushdie and I love the reminder that practice is of the upmost importance!

    I also am very, very thankful that Rushdie didn’t stay at Ogilvy long enough to remove the extra “very” from his speech—even just this tiny excerpt from his speech sounds just like his writing, and it goes to show that sometimes conforming to what’s expected may come at the expense of your uniqueness.

  11. Some great points in this article that I am going to steal! As I continually try to get my professional staff to understand how important it is to publish, something, anything, a blog, an article, to even be quoted as a thought leader, I need little tips and secrets like these. It is one thing to know how important it is to practice writing, it is another to do it, do it well, with modesty and with heart in hand knowing you really could just get skewered. Thanks

  12. Freewriting and fiction writing enhance my copywriting and blogging.

    Yoga and running enhance my Muay Thai training.

    All things that use the body are one. All things that use the written word are one.

  13. I have just finished reading Ogilvy on advertising. Great inspiration for young people in advertising.

    I have spend a fair amount of time trying to get headlines right on my blog. In my experience headlines containing words like “you” has a very high CTR.

  14. So good. More creative writers need to get this. Thanks for writing this, Joe. I can tell you put a lot of time into researching it. I, embarrassingly, don’t know much about Rushdie and a little about Ogilvy. Need to give both them a closer read.

  15. A year or so ago I wrote a book using words of 4,5,6,7 syllables. This was a deliberate ploy to emphasise an essential part of the main character’s personality. He used long words as a cover for a number of psychological shortcomings. People seem to like it. But I am in general agreement with the aims of the original post.

  16. Joe you pack a powerful punch in your piece. Big names and good tips for aspiring writers like me. I believe I write better when Im not trying to write for the masses. When I write about something important to me, that I can share without lecturing my reader and hopefully they take something small from my experiences in life. I love your website by the way, one of my favourite posts to read and on my wish list of courses to take maybe next year.

  17. One of the most important lessons I learned is that there is no such thing as writer’s block.

    As a brand new copywriter, where my boss had loved all of my work to that point, I came down with a case of writer’s block. With him being a former copywriter himself, I thought I could commiserate with him about it as the deadline loomed near.

    He looked at me curiously and said “What if a plumber told you he couldn’t fix the leak that’s flooding your basement because he had plumber’s block? Or a doctor said he couldn’t do the emergency open-heart surgery because he had surgeon’s block? I hired you because you’re talented and capable. You have a job to do and our client is paying serious money for it. I expect to see something on by desk before the end of the day.”

    And I had something on his desk by the end of the day. It wasn’t the greatest thing I’d ever written, but after a little revision it became something the client wen’t nuts for. And in the process I realized that “writer’s block” is simply procrastination and it stems from either a lack of knowledge, lack of enthusiasm, or fear of rejection.

    Get the information you need or put on your big boy/girl pants, and get on with it. You’ve got a job to do.

  18. I especially like the “panic your way to success” point. Incorporating this sounds a little daunting, but it’s certainly a great way to squeeze out some extra inspiration, or at the very least, increase productivity. I’ll be doing my best to put this into practice… soon 😉

    thanks for the great post.

  19. I especially connect with the idea of treating your writing as a job. Writing has always been in my life, but now that I want to take it to the next level I have to change how I prioritize it. It’s so important to keep that consistency going. This was a great post, thanks for sharing it.

  20. I really love this article, especially the first point: Spend an inordinate amount of time on headlines. Nothing repels me more from reading an article than a dull headline. For me, it’s like picking out sushi from a menu. The more extravagant it looks on the outside, the more of it I’ll order.

  21. Can’t say I’m surprised that Rushdie’s a former copywriter given his concise and compelling style. I do think that copywriting is an end on its own however, rather than a means to an end.

    • Interesting point, Mike. What do you mean by that? My guess is that most copywriters would say that the end is the sale, and that copywriting is a means to make that sale. Do you disagree?

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